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My Summer Vacation: Three Weeks with Elephants

Magnificent animals. Extraordinary insights. Peeing in a Tupperware container. It's all part of the deal for a research team in Namibia.

By Melinda Sacks
Photography by O’Connell & Rodwell

The tiny trunk is about the thickness of my index finger, dark gray with a tinge of pink around the tip. It is as inquisitive as it is tentative, stretching toward us as we lean back to avoid direct contact. We hold our breaths, suppressing squeals of delight, as the brand-new baby elephant tries to touch us through the viewing “window” of the concrete bunker where we are hiding.

The “pill box,” as it is affectionately called, is positioned a few yards from the Mushara water hole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, where 6-ton elephants, their families and a host of other creatures come to drink. It is an ideal research setting, removed from tourists and agriculture, and it is a second home for Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell and her husband, Tim Rodwell, MD ’03, who, along with their volunteers, are the only researchers allowed to spend the night at this magical place.

An adjunct professor in the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at the School of Medicine, O’Connell-Rodwell has made the inhabitants of this remote African gathering spot the subjects of some of the most important field research about elephant bonding, family dynamics, behavior and communication.

Last June, to celebrate a milestone birthday, I traveled with O’Connell-Rodwell and a team of five other research volunteers to study elephants in their natural environment in hopes of better understanding these long-lived, big-brained animals whose numbers are declining and whose survival is threatened.

Getting There

With my daughter and fellow volunteer, Kelsey Jessup, I set off on a 36-hour series of flights, eventually landing in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

It’s a nine-hour drive from Windhoek to Mushara, much of it through deep sand, so on the way we stay overnight at Okaukuejo Camp. At the back of the park is the research area, a cluster of old Airstream trailers and one square wood box that serves as our room, furnished with two bare mattresses for our sleeping bags and a metal table for our gear. To access the toilets and showers, we must walk across an open dirt area dotted with trees.

Before bed, the researchers warn us that a leopard has been hanging around inside the loosely constructed wire fence surrounding the camp. Leopards are beautiful, and we would like to see one, but not here and not now. Stealthy, powerful and the most athletic of the big cats, they can kill you with one bite to the neck. And they like to attack from behind.

Walking to the bathroom in the pitch black, I imagine gold eyes tracking me from a nearby tree. It’s the first time in my life I have felt in this kind of danger; it is eerie and genuinely frightening. The fact that a 20-foot-long python was also recently encountered in this area doesn’t seem nearly as alarming. “Wear closed-toe shoes,” we are told, “and watch where you step.”

At 5:00 the following morning, we are awakened by the squawking of sociable weavers, birds whose car-size nest is perched in the tree above our room. We are grateful for daylight.

Back in our two trucks, our party of eight continues on to our final stop — the Mushara water hole.

The Mushara research tower, our home for the next three weeks, is a tall, steel-framed construction with three wood platforms, each wrapped with canvas boma cloth to camouflage us from the animals. Our whispers carry across the open savanna. The animals are fully aware of our presence, but O’Connell-Rodwell is careful to make the smallest footprint possible so as to not impact wildlife behavior or habitat. An 8-foot electric fence provides the real deterrent to predators, but it is turned on only at night.

Elephants - Observing
CLOSE QUARTERS: The research tower’s proximity to the Mushara water hole enables daily observation and monitoring of behavior among family groups.

“A good year is no drama, no snakes and a good group of people,” Tim Rodwell tells us when we gather around the metal dinner table for our first evening’s security and safety briefing.

We listen as our leaders explain the rules:

  • No one walks outside the perimeter of camp without Caitlin or Tim.
  • Before using the bush toilet (a deep hole in the ground equipped with a wood seat), always shine your headlamp down the hole to check for snakes. Last year, a Cape cobra decided to hang out there.
  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Small living spaces and no hot water make for easy transmission of germs. One year the whole camp contracted the flu.
  • Lion watch is mandatory. If anyone leaves the compound (to dump a tub of dishwater or to get something from the truck), there must be at least one person on the research deck scanning 360 degrees with binoculars before the gate is opened. Although no one has been killed, there have been close encounters between researchers and lions.

Anyone who has gone camping dreads the possibility of a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom. But here the mundane concerns of privacy and inconvenience are complicated by the fact that you are sleeping near animals that could bite you (the black mamba is one of the most venomous snakes in the world), not to mention the fact that to get to the bush toilet you have to climb down a ladder in total darkness.

Elephants - O'Connell

To avoid this experience, I have decided to use the Tupperware approach to any late-night peeing that might be required. I carefully stash my plastic receptacle at the back corner of the tent, until 2 a.m., when I have to use it. With my daughter sleeping beside me, I must squat in the back of the tent and do my best to be quiet and neat. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say it didn’t go well. It was the scrubbing with wipes of my sleeping pad that woke Kelsey up, and convinced me that I’d be climbing the ladder for the rest of our stay regardless of the hour or weather.

Field Students

A scientist, researcher, conservationist, fence builder, photographer, ditch digger and gourmet chef, author and elephant expert, O’Connell-Rodwell has made her summer home at this remote Namibian site for a quarter of a century. In the early years, she slept in the concrete bunker the government built for patrolling the park, sustaining herself on powdered pea soup. Her interest in elephants began while she was investigating the role vibrations play in communication and eavesdropping in large mammals — research that can be applied to a better understanding of hearing impairments.

She has authored several books on elephants, including The Elephant’s Secret SenseAn Elephant’s Life and The Elephant Scientist, plus two novels about the ivory trade, Ivory Ghosts and White Gold. She is a co-founder and the CEO of the nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific, dedicated to research and science education, and co-director of Triple Helix Productions, which aims to develop more-accurate science content for the media.

In 2002, with a grant from National Geographic, the Rodwells brought their first team out into the field and reinforced a temporary observation tower that served as a vantage point for their elephant research. Over time, they built a more permanent structure: the steel tower that is now their base camp in Namibia. The second-level deck houses an array of video and still cameras, a library on African wildlife, logs, deck chairs and metal worktables. The camp is powered by solar and a bank of car batteries that Tim connects and oversees to operate everything from laptop computers to night vision video cameras and walkie-talkies.

Their studies of elephant communication, body language and vocalizations have led to some remarkable findings (See sidebar). O’Connell-Rodwell was the first to discover the way elephants communicate through vibrations in the ground. She also showed that elephants “listen” to these vibrations with either special sensors in their feet and at the tips of their trunks or through bone conduction. Her earlier work on male elephants revealed that they are not, as long thought, solitary, but rather that they form close relationships with one another and look for an older, dominant male to emulate.

This year, her research focuses on relationships between mothers and infants, and the dominance hierarchies within families and among matriarchs of different families. “You never know what you are going to get when you come into the field,” says O’Connell-Rodwell.

Elephants - Mom and Child

Using an online “Facebook” of elephants created by volunteers, one of the tasks this year is to build a digital database of the elephants to make identifying them easier. The database will allow us to type in a few characteristics (missing left tusk, quarter-size circular hole in right ear) and then see which elephant fits that profile. Each piece of information helps O’Connell-Rodwell better understand elephant society.

“Caitlin’s work is important because it is long term, following individuals and families over many years,” says Scott Miller, deputy undersecretary for collections and interdisciplinary support at the Smithsonian Institution, which has collaborated with O’Connell-Rodwell, including featuring her in The Elephant Whisperer, a Smithsonian Channel mini-documentary. “The future of elephants is dependent on it.”

Studying elephants presents obvious and not-so-obvious challenges. The obvious one: These are huge wild animals, and they can kill you with the swoop of a tusk or trunk. The not-so-obvious: Collecting elephant dung, which is key to decoding an elephant’s emotional and physical state, is more complicated than it sounds. Picture a herd of 30-plus elephants milling about, going in and out of a water hole. One defecates, and you ID the animal. Then you watch the manure until the elephants leave, so you can safely swoop in with blue plastic gloves and a few brown paper lunch bags and collect it. You can only hope the sample hasn’t been stepped on, contaminated or destroyed by the herd.

The dung, which is dark and wet when fresh, quickly dries into what looks like a small pile of hay. DNA-rich from having scraped the intestine of its host elephant, the dung is full of detailed information that can reveal everything from the hormonal status of the elephant and whether he or she is under stress to genetic relationships within the population. (See sidebar.)

O’Connell-Rodwell and one or two volunteers do the scooping, sifting and analysis in our tiny, sand-floored “lab,” which adjoins our dressing room. It is a far cry from the high-tech labs at Stanford, but it serves its purpose well. The process requires that the dung be fresh and redolent with information, so the work must take place quickly and on site.

Our dung station is cordoned off with canvas and consists of a metal table, Sharpies, test tubes and mixing solutions. This is where volunteer and veterinary student Caitlin Fay places the hormone samples into a dryer and then sifts them 24 hours later. (The DNA samples get mixed with dimethyl sulfoxide or ethanol. Test tubes of the preserved dung are readied for delivery to the lab at the University of Namibia, where they will be analyzed.) Multiple samples from the same animal over the course of the field season allow the study of how hormones change over time and in various situations. 

A Day (and Night) at Mushara

The water hole at Mushara has its own circadian rhythms, which we learn quickly. We are here in what qualifies as the early winter season, although temperatures can rise into the 80s. Nights and mornings require warm hats, down parkas and scarves, but before noon we are peeling off layers. On the hottest days, the plastic spray water bottle brought by a fellow volunteer is a highly valued luxury item.

Elephants - Bird of Prey

From the day of our arrival, we adopt as mascots a pair of South African shelducks living at the water hole. These goose-size birds have dramatic rust, black, white and green markings. Our two are fiercely dedicated to each other and to their six ducklings. Every day, they must fight off bigger predators, from snake eagles to jackals. While the mama and the babies paddle around the water hole feeding on snails and nesting in the mud, the papa’s life is a frantic battle to keep away the threat of attack. Ducklings are so small they would be one bite for the larger birds that frequent the pond. We watch, breathless, as the father dive-bombs a bateleur, an eagle twice his size. Every day when we arise, we count the ducklings. Still six.

The weekly schedule, handwritten on a piece of notebook paper and clothespinned to the fence, tells each of us our assigned jobs for the day. In pairs, we cycle through meal preparation, day watch (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), night watch (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and, every 10 days, highly anticipated trips to the nearest tourist camp, where we can shower and do laundry. (At the five-day point, those who wish are allowed a bush shower and five liters of water to do any laundry that can’t wait.)

By day three, we have settled into a routine, and my comfort level is rising. It is remarkable how quickly we adjust. Now the bulls that frequent the water hole are a bit ho-hum. The females with babies are more exciting. The occasional lion is still gasp-worthy.

One evening, on dinner duty, my daughter and I make pasta by the red light of our headlamps; red light doesn’t disturb the animals the way white light does. O’Connell-Rodwell has set the bar high with her creativity in the kitchen: a birthday crème brûlée, made with evaporated milk; a delectable green bean and beet salad with curry dressing made from canned vegetables.

A loud grumble erupts from just outside the canvas walls of the ground-floor kitchen.

“Is that a rhino or an elephant?” I ask matter-of-factly. It’s not a question I’ve ever posed before while making dinner, but it’s our new normal.

The real action takes place on the research deck, the second floor of our tower. With a 360-degree view of the surrounding grasslands and the water hole that draws all the animals, we use binoculars to track their movements, which we carefully record in bound logbooks. My job is often to videotape the elephants from their entrance to the clearing to their departure. This means I am party to some extremely poignant and shockingly harsh interactions between our subjects, which range from newborns and young adolescents to pregnant females and the elderly. Over time, we learn to recognize the members of the elephant family groups who have been nicknamed for identification purposes — the Actors, the Authors, the Goddesses, the Princesses — by their physical attributes, such as ear shape, notches, tears and markings; their tusks (broken, shorter on one side, skewed to the left); and their sizes (baby, quarter-size, half-size, three-quarter and full).

As darkness falls, we set up night-vision equipment, which gives us a grainy green but clear view of the water hole and its many nocturnal visitors. While the rest of the camp collapses into exhausted slumber, O’Connell-Rodwell’s night is just beginning. Faintly visible under the luminous starlit sky, the animals don’t sleep. O’Connell-Rodwell places her Nikon, her low-light binoculars and her boots at the foot of her bed, then waits for elephant drama to unfold.

A major focus of O’Connell-Rodwell’s research is elephant communication, which comes in the form of vocal rumbles and trumpets, body language (ear flapping, trunk gestures, direction and position of stance) and, more recently understood, the ground, which can be felt miles away by a receiving elephant.

To capture the audio, we hide a highly sensitive microphone in a rock pile as close as possible to the water hole. Tim covers the $2,000 piece of equipment in a soft, furry black-and-white windsock inserted within a PVC plumbing T-junction to protect it from curious wildlife, then runs the mic wires back to our tower. Elephants (and hyenas, it turns out) are curious and highly observant. The first time they arrive after the wire has been meticulously placed in the trough we dug and covered with sand, they walk right up to it. Several females begin poking it with their trunks, sweeping away the carefully constructed camouflage that Tim spent the day creating with branches he harvested from the bush. A baby elephant delights in rolling like a puppy in the just-dug-up sand. They eventually lose interest and wander back to the water hole, but not before creating lots more work for us.

The hyenas don’t give up. By the next morning, the scruffy, hunchbacked characters have pulled the microphone out of the rock pile, yanked it from the wires and taken it out into the clearing, where they dumped it after realizing it wasn’t edible. This leads to distress and then a comical search in which Tim drives his truck around the enormous clearing, directed by Caitlin, who uses her binoculars and a walkie-talkie to guide him. The search for the mic must be carried out without disturbing the animals (or having a dangerous encounter with them). Lion and elephant watch is in full effect as we volunteers scan the horizon.

Truthfully, it’d be incredibly difficult to spot a lion on the golden, flat sand clearing. If a lion were out there, we hope we’d see it before it saw Tim, but we aren’t sure we could.


Early in the trip, I realize the difference between reading about field research and experiencing it. We are in the four-wheel-drive Toyota with Tim behind the wheel when it happens. As if magically materializing from nowhere, a mama rhino and her 200-pound calf appear in the road and turn to face our vehicle. Tim slams on the brakes and shifts into reverse, muttering “Shit, shit, shit” as he presses the gas pedal to the floor. There is a momentary gasp from us passengers as we contemplate an animal as big as our car; she could flip us in a heartbeat if she wished. Then the rhino turns and continues across the road, her calf close behind her, and they disappear into the brush. Disaster averted.

Who knew, then, that in the midst of these enormous creatures and this remote, rough landscape, it would be the mice that would present one of the biggest challenges? Thanks to the unusually rainy year that preceded our arrival, the mouse population is booming. The ground is practically carpeted with African mice that look like cute hamsters with long, hairless tails. They are so brazen we have to take care not to step on them. Our first night on dinner duty, a fat tawny mouse walked over my feet to grab a plastic water bottle that had fallen on the ground, and began dragging it away right under our noses. The mice are a serious problem because where there are mice there may soon be snakes, so Tim spends each night reattaching the canvas walls, which the mice burrow under.

We trap the mice using a metal pot and a flat Tupperware lid and plop them into a box. At the end of the night, Tim and Caitlin drive far from camp and release the mice. We joke about who will make it back to camp more quickly, the humans or the mice. Ridding camp of mice is a safety issue, but it is done without killing or disturbing wildlife, including the pesky rodents.

The Flying Vet

During our thrilling venture to the bunker in which we encounter the curious baby elephant, we also spot a young male elephant with a metal wire wrapped tightly around his lower leg. Dragging from the wire is a large piece of wood, likely uprooted from a fence the elephant went through at the edge of the park. We are horrified to see that the wire is already cutting into his leg, a precursor to injury and potential infection that could be fatal.

Elephants - Bunker
GROUND-LEVEL VIEW: The “pill box” was originally built to help patrol the park but now offers special access for researchers.

O’Connell-Rodwell picks up her cell phone to call the traveling vet, Axel Hartmann, who is responsible for all the wildlife of Etosha National Park, as well as other national parks in Namibia. He’ll be out in the morning to see whether we can spot the injured elephant. If so, his helicopter pilot will get him close enough to dart the elephant with a tranquilizer so he can descend and quickly remove the wire while the chopper pilot keeps the rest of the herd at bay.

The injured elephant doesn’t appear on the day of Hartmann’s visit. However, while Hartmann is on the tower with us, we notice a zebra whose front hooves have grown so long and deformed that they curl up like Aladdin’s slippers, making it difficult for the zebra to walk. He lies down only a few yards from the entrance to our camp, as if asking for help. (This is what it looks like to me, even as I know that anthropomorphizing the animals is one of the perils of being a nonscientist in the field.)

Hartmann tells us it wouldn’t be right for him to intervene and fix the zebra’s hooves, because it is a natural phenomenon, unlike the wire around the elephant’s leg, which is the result of human activity. Nature will take its course, meaning the zebra will soon be someone else’s dinner. I wonder how I once thought I could be a wildlife biologist.

The next morning, the zebra is gone.

Where to Go from Here

“No matter where you come from, spiritually or socioeconomically, there is some sense of pride that you share this earth with these creatures,” says O’Connell-Rodwell, when I ask her why the average person should care about African wildlife. “We can save it or destroy it. It’s in our power. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

According to the Red List of Threatened Species, kept by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the African Elephant is listed as vulnerable but not endangered. But with populations plummeting and poaching continuing to be an enormous problem, many worry this level of protection is insufficient. The population dropped by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014 due to habitat loss and encroachment, not to mention poaching, which has reached ever higher levels of sophistication, including the use of drones and a syndicate-like operational structure.

Through her research and writing, O’Connell-Rodwell hopes to foster understanding and protection of the elephant and, more broadly, African wildlife. She takes every opportunity to invite local and outside people who can make a difference to see the Mushara research camp and to learn about its residents. During our stay, we are visited by antipoaching teams of guards, national park officials, fellow scientists and others.

Twenty-three days after we arrived at the steel tower that has been our home, it is time to pack up and head back to “normal” life. Tim moves between floors, dashing up and down ladders carrying huge camera packs, boxes of research materials, and all the equipment we’ve relied on to record, videotape, log and document the herds. We roll up our heavy sleeping pads, box up leftover cans of food, and disassemble our metal tables and the large shade structure under which we’ve eaten for the past three weeks. Nothing but the tower remains when we leave.

As we work, a strange thing happens. A veritable animal parade unfolds in front of the steel tower. We stop working to watch, and call Tim and Caitlin to join us.

Elephants - Giraffes

In small groups and one by one, ostriches, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, springbok and kudus pass by in a sort of Noah’s ark march. Even elephants, including two favorites, Big Mamma and Cleopatra, saunter into the clearing, glance up at us in the tower, and then depart. Have they come to bid us farewell? The scientists are amused by our comments, but we’re all mesmerized.

In these three weeks, I have stopped operating based on to-do lists and moved into a daily rhythm that fits the natural world here. When it gets dark, we sleep. When the animals are active at the water hole, we work furiously to capture, measure and document it all. But when there is quiet, it is a kind of quiet I’ve never experienced. A stillness that makes the air feel thick.

I have laughed more easily here and felt how truly tiny I am in the scheme of things. I have learned that I thrive without makeup or frequent texting and emailing on my iPhone, I can manage on very little water, and that I am fine even if I can’t take a shower for nine days. I am more resilient than I thought. I am changed. I vow to remember the spirit that is this place.

Elephants - Researchers
TEAM MUSHARA 2017:Katie Lawlor; Julia Gimeno; Kelsey Jessup; Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell; Caitlin Fay; Judy Wieske; Melinda Sacks.

We watch the last herd of the morning trundle off toward the edge of the clearing, morphing into cement-gray boulders as they move farther away, then finally disappearing into the trees and scrub.

It is up to all of us to make sure they return. I am already plotting my next trip to Mushara.

Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer for STANFORD.


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